If asked to name the best-selling Chicago blues artist of the late 1950s and early 1960s, he probably wouldn’t be your first guess, but his long string of hits and far-reaching influence is undeniable. In fact, due in part to his easily accessible music, he has been described by famed music critic Cub Koda as
perhaps the most influential bluesman of all
The life of Mathis James “Jimmy” Reed (September 6, 1925 – August 29, 1976) is a tale of casual brilliance and tragedy. Born in Mississippi, he learned the harmonica and guitar from local semi-professional player and close friend Eddie Taylor. They were raised together from the age of seven. He busked and performed for tips around the Delta before moving to Chicago in 1943, but his burgeoning career was interrupted when he was drafted into the navy. Following World War II, Reed returned briefly to Mississippi before settling in Indiana with his new wife Mary who would become known as “Mama Reed”. He supported them by working at Armour & Co. meat packing plant while he worked to establish himself as a popular musician in the growing local scene and in nearby Chicago. He became known for his ability to play the guitar and harmonica simultaneously utilizing a harmonica holder he constructed from a coat hanger.
Reed auditioned with Chess Records, the greatest blues record label at the time, but failing to gain a contract, he signed with Vee-Jay Records thanks to the drummer Albert King who he had met while playing with the “Gary Kings”. It was here that Reed again began to play with his old friend Eddie Taylor and his third recording, “You Don’t Have to Go” (1954), became his first hit record. He following up this recording with a string of hits.
A Jimmy Reed song typically has 3 elements: piercing harmonica, uncomplicated guitar, and slurred vocals. Reed uses the guitar to keep time and the harmonica to add riffs and solos.
His bottom string boogie rhythm guitar patterns… simple two-string turnarounds, countryish harmonica solos (all played in a neck rack attachment hung around his neck) and mush mouthed vocals were probably the first exposure most White folks had to the blues. And his music – lazy, loping and insistent and constantly built and reconstructed single after single on the same sturdy frame – was a formula that proved to be enormously successful and influential, both with middle-aged Blacks and young White audiences for a good dozen years. – Cub Koda
Reed’s easy, unpretentious style appealed to blues and non-blues fans alike. While relatively few American whites had heard of B.B. King or Muddy Waters, they were snapping up Reed’s records and he was getting airplay on white radio stations with rock and pop formats. He was able to reach audiences like no Delta bluesman before him. He seemingly pulled songs out of nowhere and his audiences loved them. They were highly relatable and highly danceable! He may not have been as technically skilled or powerfully intense as his contemporaries, but among the early electric blues artists, his sound is easily identifiable.
Reed’s songs were composed by himself and his wife, Mama Reed. They cover life and love with natural, conversational tones and very little of the ‘macho posturing’ so common in blues songs. It is likely his simplicity and lack of confrontation that made him so popular.
It was honest and simple…and it drew its strength from the authenticity and clarity of Reed’s observations about the everyday affairs of ordinary people. – Pete Welding
The great tragedy of Reed’s life is how unprepared he was to handle his success. He could sign his name for fans, but that was the sum total of his literacy. And he was not the first bluesman to suffer from alcoholism but unlike some others, he did not hold his liquor well and tales of his drunken escapades both on- and off-stage were told throughout the Chicago blues community long after his passing. Often noticeably drunk on stage, Reed would completely lose the beat, slurring or outright forgetting his words. Mama Reed, who was often uncredited for backing vocals on his records, became responsible for helping him maintain his reputation and remember the lyrics to the songs he himself had written. On some of his recordings, you can even hear Mama Reed valiantly trying to keep him on beat.
Jimmy Reed with Mama Reed – Big Boss Man
But despite Mama Reed’s efforts, by the time the blues revival hit in the late 1960s, Reed was too far gone to be able to resurrect his career. His bouts with delirium tremens were so common that when epilepsy developed in 1957, his symptoms would be improperly attributed to his alcoholism for many months. Yet Reed continued to pump out hits and wow audiences, including a 1961 performance at Carnegie Hall – although interestingly, the resulting album “Live at Carnegie Hall” is actually a studio reproduction of the performance.
By the early 1960s, Reed was outselling Chess greats including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter, but it all came to an end when his label Vee-Jay Records temporarily ceased operations in 1963. Though Reed signed with the newly formed ABC-Bluesway label and toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival, he was never able to produce another hit and his drunken and erratic performances were often a disappointing shock to his new audiences. He did eventually received proper medical care and he quit drinking, but he passed away of respiratory failure after an epileptic seizure just a few days before his 51st birthday.
Though gone much too soon, Reed’s music lives on. Thanks to a bit of luck, when Craft Recordings acquired the Vee-Jay catalogue, a cache of reels, many of them first generation masters, was discovered behind a false wall in a Chicago-area storage unit. These recordings include dialogue between Jimmy Reed and the legendary engineer Bill Putnam who was a pioneer in developing the reverb and echo effects that you’ll hear on the drum sounds on Reed’s records. Reed’s entire Vee-Jay catalogue has been re-mastered and released, dialogue and all.
GRAMMY® award-winning producer and music historian Scott Billington discusses Jimmy Reed’s recordings
Reed’s songs have been recorded by Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones (who cite him as a major influence on their early sound), Lou Rawls, Hank Williams Jr., Chuck Berry, The Yardbirds with Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, The Grateful Dead, and Etta James to name a very small few of the phenomenal artists who consider Reed an influence.
Yes, anybody with a range of more than six notes could sing Jimmy’s tunes and play them the first day Mom and Dad brought home that first guitar from Sears & Roebuck. I guess Jimmy could be termed the ’50s punk bluesman. – Billy Vera
TO Blues’ own Shimmy Shakers perform to a cover of Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do” by Toronto artist Tyler Yarema at NYC’s Nocturne Blues 2014
Dexter Santos performs to Jimmy Reed’s “My Baby Told Me” as part of the opening night of Dexter’s Laboratory: Toronto Blues Edition 2018
In the end, 11 of Reed’s records charted on Billboard’s Hot 100 pop chart, a number unmatched by even the great B.B. King. Yet despite his success and far-reaching influence, Reed has never gained the same level of fame or respect as his contemporaries.
While revisionist blues historians like to make a big deal about either the lack of variety of his work or how later recordings turned him into a mere parody of himself, the public just couldn’t get enough of it… To paraphrase the old saying, nobody liked Jimmy Reed but the people. – Cub Koda
Simple and accessible. That was the music of Jimmy Reed.
Our friend and Uk-based DJ Tracy Karkut-Law has an excellent Jimmy Reed write-up. We highly recommend checking out her blog “Sitting at the Foot of the Blues” and the Jimmy Reed playlist she compiled.
“Jimmy Reed”. 2018. Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. https://www.rockhall.com/inductees/jimmy-reed.
“Jimmy Reed – New World Encyclopedia”. 2018. Newworldencyclopedia.Org. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Jimmy_Reed.
“Jimmy Reed | Biography & History | Allmusic”. 2018. Allmusic. https://www.allmusic.com/artist/jimmy-reed-mn0000076881/biography.
Oakley, Giles. 1997. The Devil’s Music. New York: Da Capo Press.
Palmer, Robert. 1986. Deep Blues. Harmondswort: Penguin Books.
Team uDiscover. 2018. “Jimmy Reed: The Story Of An Unlikely Blues Hero | Udiscover”. Udiscovermusic. https://www.udiscovermusic.com/stories/jimmy-reed-story-unlikely-blues-hero/.
“The Bluesharp Page:Legends:Jimmy Reed”. 2018. Bluesharp.Ca. http://www.bluesharp.ca/legends/jreed.html.